By BRUCE DENNILL
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street / Directed by Steven Stead / Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Johannesburg
This Pieter Torien and KickstArt production of Sweeney Todd begins with a clever sequence in which, during the opening song, The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd, raises the level of tension to a level audiences might only reasonably expect an hour later. The play’s conventional opening has the ending given away by this point, but here there’s a nod to the story’s Vaudevillian roots as Sweeney Todd himself, in the glowering, belligerent form of Jonathan Roxmouth, is revealed via a sinister Punch & Judy-style street show.
It is to the cast’s great credit that this level of breathlessness is maintained throughout the musical’s near three-hour running time: the plot focal points and the themes that give them heft change, but the buzz never (unlike some of the characters) dies.
The set, costume and lighting design combine superbly to make the visuals a powerful presence throughout. Built on two levels that can be adapted through canny engineering to represent different spaces, Greg King’s set evokes the dank, permanently threatening nature of late-1800s London, a context in which violence and depravity are more or less the default societal setting. And Tina Le Roux’s lighting means that when a blade is raised, there’s a chilling shadow behind the action and when the ensemble lineup at the front of the stage, their leering faces are lit from below in old-fashioned campfire horror story fashion, lending their collective performance a further edginess.
The ensemble work is generally excellent, with only a couple of regularly shifting accents letting the side down. It is worth mentioning this shortfall, as it’s the only obvious fault in a production that could otherwise grace any stage in the world. As it is, the moments when a British street urchin sounds like he’s from Potchefstroom or a sailor’s tones suggest he’s based in the East London built along the Buffalo River, rather than the one abutting the Thames are distracting. Happily, it’s something that can be tweaked along the way.
In lead roles, Michael Richard as Judge Turpin and Adam Pelkowitz as Beadle Bamford excel (the latter’s singing range is, additionally, exceptional). The real power of the story is that it reveals layers of evil; that villains can be conflicted complicated beings as often as they are heartless, cruel creatures. And the realisation, for the audience, that the lowest common moral denominators onstage are – somehow – not the madman who slices throats without flinching or the sly matron who uses the desperation of others to her own advantage, is devastating (for those who consider the ramifications of that insight beyond outside the theatre doors).
Here is a judge who abuses his power in the vilest possible ways, and a henchman who knowingly facilitates such actions. These are awful, despicable people and their characters are all the more difficult to tolerate because they are accurate reflections of what audiences see in newspapers every day 130 years after this piece is set.
By contrast, Sweeney Todd is an upstanding individual – a troubled bloke dealing with the emotional and mental fallout of being convicted for a crime and punished in such a way that he lost his wife, his family and 15 years of his life. Of course his reaction – a lethally focused quest for revenge – cannot be condoned, but his pain can be understood.
Roxmouth captures every nuance of the character perfectly – the coiled physicality; the obsessive drive; the emotional desolation – and is a genuinely daunting presence, his impact aided by a shaven pate and make-up that highlights his sunken eyes. His ability to sing in a low register (always more intimidating) and a commitment to the acting aspect of the role – his heart is on his sleeve, as opposed to in a pie – make this a part that will long stand out in his resume, which is saying something for an actor that has played the title role in Phantom of the Opera more than 500 times.
At the centre of just about everything is Charon Williams-Ros’s Nellie Lovett, pulling the strings and manipulating those around her onstage as she delights and entertains those off it. Williams-Ros is as comfortable with her multi-faceted character as she is with Stephen Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyrics in her solos.
There are relatively few solos in this musical and therein lies the remaining great strength of this production: performing one of the most complex scores in musical theatre, they never waver in pitch or stumble over a poly-rhythm or counter-melody. In that regard, kudos must go to musical director Rowan Bakker, who would have had his hands full with this one.